‘At once silent and eloquent’: Pakistan’s visual poetry
For a country with a low literacy rate, the central role of the written word in society can be surprising
This line from the famous Mughul poet Ghalib refers to what he claimed to be ancient Persian tradition of petitioners wearing paper before entering the courts to get justice:
Whose mischief created a world of beseechers?
Each petitioner is seen wearing a garment of paper
Indeed, for a country that has a low literacy rate, the written word is a central part of Pakistani society. All over Karachi, “wall chalking,” as it is called, lines the streets with announcements of political meetings, informal advertising and messages in support of or against political leaders.
Intelligence agencies and the press pick up writings that appear overnight as a show of political strength or indicators of political party infighting. Sometimes walls carry threats against specific people, such as “ainda na dehkoon” (this should not happen again) written by “bosses” to keep the local heavies in check. These are usually written in Urdu calligraphic style.
An unusual message stands out for its untidy spray painted phrase “Perfume Chowk” (perfume crossroads). Curious viewers discovered it was a message written by the heroic owner of a small stall selling attar (scented oil) in Gulistan-e-Jauhar, a suburb of Karachi, whose stall was regularly destroyed by people to whom he refused to give protection money.
A people’s narrative
Countries have many narratives: the official state narrative, the narratives of friends and allies, that of enemies, of moral custodians; and then there is the complex, layered narrative of a country’s people. These occupy sociologists, historians, literary critics, artists, film-makers, musicians, novelists and poets. Beneath the surface waves, one has to dive deeper to understand the true nature of the soul of a people, but occasionally the hidden becomes visible and lends itself to decoding.
This is most true of the place occupied by poetry in Pakistan. Classic forms can be of religious songs such as naats (a poem usually sung without music in praise of the Prophet Muhammad), qawalis (Sufi devotional songs performed by a large group of musicians accompanied by harmonium, drums and rhythmic clapping) and marsias (a poem of mourning and lament recounting the martyrdom of the Prophet’s grandson and his family at Kerbela).
But often poems are also more worldly love songs of film; colourful metaphors that take place during mushairas (public recitation of Urdu poetry) or poetry events. The preferred form of Urdu poetry is the ghazal, or couplet, which has its origins in Arabic literature via Persian poetry. Ghazals are composed as sophisticated conceits, ostensibly about love, longing, separation and loss, but imply commentaries that range from Sufi love of the divine, to local politics.
Hearing the voice of the individual
The decorated transport of Pakistan is much celebrated for its excessive colourful adornment and painted images. Less noticed are the embedded verses that are an essential part of all trucks, buses and rickshaws.
These are attempted conversations with “someone out there”, an amplification of one’s presence in a society that renders the common man invisible. “Whispering in our ears”, these writings express personal feelings, outrage or simply indignation, loss, desire, or a moment of reflection.
Hungarian philosopher Ferenc Hörcher has suggested that conversation “liberates the human self from the bondages of practical life and brings about a sense of equilibrium”. Intimate expressions are externalised in the public sphere addressing an assumed community. These writings symbolise an attempt to wrest authorship by marginalised citizens.
As Pakistani poet Noon Meem Rashid (1910-1975) wrote:
From amidst the crowd of men
The voice of the individual is heard
There are 600,000 commercial vehicles, which include buses, trucks and three wheelers (among them rickshaws), that circulate on 260,760 km of roads according to 2010 data published by the government. Most of these vehicles carry writings.
Pakistan is portrayed as a belligerent, angry country, churning out extremists. The poetry on decorated transport tells another story. The most commonly used phrase is Maan ki dua Jannat ki hawa (A mother’s prayer is a breeze from heaven) followed by Dekh magar piyar say (You can look, but with love), and a newcomer, Jiyo aur jinay do (Live and let live).
The themes of the poetry varies with the type of transport. The poetry on long-distance trucks transporting good across the country reflect the insecure journeys they face and the loneliness of being away from their families:
Road se dosti safar se yaari
Dekh pyaray zindgi hamari
(I befriend the road, my companion is the journey
See the life I lead, my dear friend)
The city busses are usually more light-hearted and risqué:
Dil Barai farookht. Qeemat ail muskarahat
(My heart is for sale. The price: one smile)
Aaghaz e jawani hai hum jhoom kay chaltay hain
dunya yeh samajhti hai hum pi kay nikaltay hain
(I swagger because I am young
The world thinks I reel because I am drunk)
But occasionally the concerns are serious:
Pata kiya khaak batain nishan hai be nishan apna
laga baithay bistar jahan wahin samjho makan apna
(How can I tell you my address, I have left no mark
Wherever I lay down my bags, that is home)
mohabbat na kar ameeron say jo barbad kartay hain
mohabbat kar ghareebon say jo hameesha yaad kartay hain
(Do not love the rich who only ruin you
Love the poor who always remember you)
Buses and trucks are usually a lucrative business. The rickshaw on the other hand is usually owner-driven and provides an insight into Pakistani society’s least privileged communities.
Rather than the ghazal couplet seen on trucks and buses, rickshaws have boldly written enigmatic poetic phrases such as Kaash (if only), Bikhray Moti (strewn pearls) zakhmi parinda (wounded bird) akhri goli (the last bullet). Sometimes a rickshaw simply carries the name of a beloved daughter or a Sufi saint.
Funny poems or phrases are common to all forms of transport, making life’s problems and suffering bearable if only for a while. This is a feint that compels us to read between the lines, an essential component of the layered and often esoteric nature of Pakistani society.
Arabic poetry also gave Urdu the influence of Hija or satiric poetry. While the -qit’ah (a light-hearted fragmentary poetic phrase) extolled the virtues of tribal heroes, the hija denigrated rival tribes.
Another influence is that of Sufi poetry. The majority of Pakistani Muslims are of the Barelvi sect, which is interwoven with Sufism. Most decorated vehicles carry messages and prayers collected from Sufi shrines.
This penchant for bitter-sweet or dark humour pervades Pakistani society and may spring from the loss of agency in a region that has been repeatedly invaded since at least 1800 BC, each invader creating a powerful ruling elite imposing its culture and ignoring, for the most part, the lives of ordinary citizens.
In this sense these subtexts are essentially a protest, reaching out to a community longing for social justice and recognition. As poet Noon Meem Rashid wrote:
We are a solitary letter of the alphabet
At once silent and eloquent